Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Misleading Attractions of Competency-Based Education

Between falsehood and useless truth there is little difference. As gold which he cannot spend will make no man rich, so knowledge which he cannot apply will make no man wise. -- Samuel Johnson
I bought a PC in 1985 that had 256K installed memory. As I was about to leave the store, the salesman asked what I would use the computer for. I mentioned an array of tasks I would be needing it for as headmaster of a private school.

He suggested I get more memory, since my usage would be heavy. In fact, he suggested that I, at least, triple it to be “safe.” At substantial cost, I had the memory quadrupled, and picked up the machine for work the next day.

It was several weeks dealing with beginning of the term issues before I could get around to use the computer to automate record keeping. It was with no little dismay that I turned on the computer and got a message that it could only access 512K of memory that was installed. The extra turned out to be a wasted investment.

Education Week reports that New Hampshire Schools are embracing Competency Based Education (CBE). Students will only “move on” if they demonstrate competency in what they’ve studied. This sounds good on the face of it, but is the school system willing to accept the costs of adjustment to take full advantage of what it promises? Or will it just be “unaccessible extra memory”?

For example, will students be able to “move on” not only IF they show competency, but WHEN they show it? If you’ve never done rostering, you can’t imagine the headaches involved with changing schedules in mid-flow of the school year. But if you don’t change schedules, what do the students do? Stay physically in place and get harder material and additional instruction? Or sit around bored? Ask yourself which of these options are cheaper, and you can predict what will likely be the default response.

But there are many practices and programs that will need modification (read “incur increased costs”) if CBE is to be “embraced.” What about Special Education or instruction attempting to meet the individual needs of each child?

But even more fundamental is the long-established practiced of age-grading. This ignores competencies altogether and places kids in classes according to their birth-dates. By imagining that kids are developmentally and intellectually more or less equal, it addresses the social and disciplinary needs of the school organization that are the primary concerns of the community, parents and school administration -- pious lip-service to “academics” to the contrary notwithstanding.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Classification Error in Evaluation Practice: the impact of the "false positive" on educational practice and policy

--- EGR